Some persistent ideas

December 10, 2009

JackCrens-December 10, 2009

It won't come as a surprise to any practitioner of the software art that we tend to be an ornery and opinionated sort. That's been true throughout the history of the discipline and was especially true in the early days. We early software folk tended to be "rugged individualists" with very strong, albeit wildly differing, notions about how software should be written. There were few if any established methodologies or ground rules at the time. Even Kernighan's and Plauger's seminal book, Elements of Programming Style, was still in the future.

Today, academic disciplines and studies, textbooks, formal methodologies, company training courses, programming guidelines, and peer attitudes may have dampened the wildest excursions of our individualism but not eliminated them.

Like all creative people, software folk often have ideas of their own as to how things should be done. But ideas come in all flavors: some are good, some are brilliant, and some are crushingly, embarrassingly bad. In the end, the trick is not to have only good ideas (that's not possible) and definitely not to blindly follow the ideas of some vaunted authority. The trick, rather, is to be able to discern the good ideas from the bad ones, reject the bad ones, and adopt the good ones as your own.

For reasons I don't fully understand and therefore can't explain, I've often found my own ideas to be out of step with those of my colleagues. These differences led to debates, ranging from polite discussion to out-and-out food fights. In time, I came to accept the battles as part of the profession and contented myself with the observation that "my side" often carried the day.

But I never anticipated that I'd be having to fight the same tedious battles, generation after generation, ad infinitum. Just when I think I've gotten out of the debates, they pull me back in. Just when I think a given issue has been settled for all time, along comes a new generation of programmers, sporting the same tired old idea. Some of the worst ideas seem to enjoy eternal life, enjoying rebirth and returning to plague me, like Count Dracula rising from his coffin.

Today, I'd like to tell you about two of the more persistent and pernicious of the Bad Ideas.

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